"If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team." Or not, because that old, customised GMC van may have had fancy alloys and a big, red, go-faster stripe, but it's getting on a bit now. What you need is a team of gung-ho former commandos for hire with a modern set of sporty wheels. In other words, forget Mr. T and think T32 instead, as in this Volkswagen Transporter T32 Sportline. But is it the sports van it's cracked up to be?
It should be. After all, the regular Transporter 6.1, which is the facelift model that arrived a few years ago, is a very good van. Even the SWB has a relatively big cargo area, the options - in terms of wheelbase, door configurations, number of seats and engines - is comprehensive to say the least, and for a two-tonner it's already agile. It's so good, in fact, that at £55,107 (inc. VAT) this Sportline needs to offer something pretty zesty over, say, the mid-range TDI 150 SWB Highline (at a smidge under £40,000) to really justify itself..
On the mechanical front you get the top-spec 204hp 2.0-litre diesel coupled with a standard seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. You also get a 30mm drop in ride height, thanks to the sports suspension, which means that on the standard 18-inch black alloys the thing looks slammed. Especially so because the many styling upgrades include illuminated side bars and deeper, more aggressive bumpers, all of which make the ground clearance even tighter. Alongside those bits you also get a spoiler - of course you do, because you need downforce on a brick-shaped van for the times when it's not carrying bricks - and a red stripe on the front grille. That's there as a nod to the original A-Team van. Or maybe the Golf GTI.
And inside? Wowee, now we're talking. Bells and whistles don't cover it. Because there aren't any of those. Instead, you get trim that 'matches its premium yet sporty exterior' (VW's words, not ours). Think nappa leather and Alcantara with honeycomb stitching and Sportline logos. There's also gloss black trim on the dashboard - and that's not all, because there's added comfort and convenience, too. This is in the form of heated seats, LED head and taillights, a rear-view camera, front and rear parking sensors, adaptive cruise control with city AEB and even a digital cockpit. And we're still not finished, because you can add a Discover Media navigation system with 8.0-inch touchscreen, smartphone link, sat nav and 'Streaming & Internet' capability.
So, it's unquestionably well kitted out, but is this body-kitted van for the maverick man (or woman) amazing to drive? Err, well, it's okay. That sports suspension should mean it'll land the kind of jumps we saw the GMC pull off in the 80s, because it's quite stiff. Around town it rides like someone's let all the air out of the tyres. Christ, it's lumpy over meaningful bumps, which, as we know, is something our Department for Transport specialises in. It's not quite so brutal on faster roads but still doesn't ride as well as the regular version - and as it happens, they're not as comfortable as something like an EMP2-based Citroën Dispatch or Toyota Proace. Or as quiet, because the Transporter is quite loud on the motorway.
This Sportline does handle gamely, though. For a van the steering is incisive enough to make it feel quick-witted. But as we pointed out at the start, Transporters feel like that anyway, and to much the same degree. Okay, maybe this one's a bit tighter on the body control, so it leans less, and, yes, it probably has more grip, too, thanks to its fat 255/45 tyres. But there is an issue with this. The purpose of a van is to transport goods or equipment around in a large, open space in the back. This means whatever is in the back is free to slide around. So every time you chuck the Sportline into a bend with venom and a scandi-flick, whatever you're carrying will be either smashed into a million pieces, or, if it's a paint tin for example, probably explode. And do you want the interior of your expensive pride and joy redecorated in Farrow & Ball's Mouse's Back? This will also be very expensive because the cost of one tin of Farrow & Ball paint is equivalent to the GDP of France.
The same situation applies to the engine. Yes, 204hp sounds great and, in a sense, it is. The Sportline certainly feels brisk but, more importantly, very, very torquey from way down low in the rev range. This is because it develops 332lb ft from just 1,400rpm and that's the sort of lugging ability you want in a van. However, the TDI 150 meters out 251lb ft from a similar starting point and, well, that's more than enough to lug, too. And if you want, you can still buy the TDI 150 with the same DSG gearbox that comes as standard with this Sportline, which is mostly very good. When you're in an among the traffic it flicks through gears speedily without you feeling what's happening, and it shoots to a lower ratio quickly when you kick it down. It can be quite abrupt when you're pulling away, mind.
The bulkhead behind the front seats makes the legroom a bit tight if you're leggy, but otherwise it's spacious and also easy to see out of. The driving position is sound, too: the seat is supportive and comes with twin armrests, there are plenty of cubbies and cup holders, and the array of simple switches combine well with the onboard tech, like the digital driver display and infotainment system. This means it is quite simple to use. And just in case you're wondering, it's the old-school VW infotainment. So when you press an icon something meaningful happens quickly and the system doesn't shut down like it does in VW products fitted with the new and 'improved' system.
How about the crucial bit in the back? Well, this SWB model will take a payload of 1,165kg, which is roughly the same as the equivalently powerful Ford Transit Custom SWB. And while the Transit is wider between the arches - 1,351mm versus 1,244mm - the Sportline's load bay is marginally longer (at 2,572mm) and taller (at 1,410mm). Officially it'll do up to 37.5mpg, which is also competitive, and on a brisk motorway run (with an empty hold) it was managing 35mpg easily.
There you have it, then. The Volkswagen Transporter Sportline is a good van - probably good enough to replace the GMC for a band of vigilantes. And if all you care about is looks, equipment and the last word in straight-line speed and grip, it'll do you very nicely, too. However, on the things that actually matter to your average van driver - comfort, load-carrying ability, price, running costs - it's either worse or no better than very excellent 2.0 TDI 150 Highline. So, if you're desperate to offset some tax and have a long-term deal with a handy osteopath, you should consider buying a Sportline. But if not, then don't.
Specification | Volkswagen Transporter Sportline T32 SWB 2.0 TDI 204 DSG
Engine: 1,968cc, four-cylinder, turbocharged diesel
Transmission: 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 204 @ 4,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332 @ 1,400-2,250rpm
0-62mph: 8.9 seconds
Top speed: 126mph
Weight: 2,035kg (running order)
Price: £55,107 (price as tested: £55,899)
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